UK Chief of Defence Staff participates in daily coronavirus briefing

23 April 2020 (Last Updated April 23rd, 2020 15:00)

The UK Government’s daily coronavirus briefings to the nation have made the public more familiar with members of the Cabinet than ever and made minor celebrities of scientists and medical experts. For the first time yesterday, they were joined on the podia by the UK’s most senior military official, Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter, to offer an update on what the armed services and defence as a whole have been doing to support the government’s response to the Covid-19 coronavirus.

UK Chief of Defence Staff participates in daily coronavirus briefing
Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter took part in yesterday’s government coronavirus update. Credit: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

Introduced by First Secretary of State Dominic Raab and wearing camouflage fatigues rather than dress uniform, he began by reassuring viewers that the military’s role has been as support for NHS and social care healthcare workers on the front line, and has involved deploying mechanisms and skills the military already had in place.

“We’ve done this in a variety of ways,” said Carter. “We’ve supported first and foremost the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the devolved administrations, through the national spine of local national fora that the First Secretary referred to, and we have dozens of liaison officers embedded into each of those fora.

“It’s a tried and tested system that’s been used many times in the past, whether for delivering military aid to the civil authorities, through foot and mouth or flooding or for wildfires. It’s frequently exercised and there are very close relationships which give great confidence between everyone working on those teams at the lower level. It’s important because it’s at this delegated level that this works because it makes them much more responsive, and much more flexible to respond to local demand whether it’s for ambulance drivers or for testing or whatever else. With decentralisation being so much the key to the way some of this is done, And the Defence Secretary delegated authority to this level early in the crisis which has proved to be extraordinarily successful.”

Logistic support

Carter went on to described how the armed forces have brought their logistic experience to bear to support the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS.

“I would say that in all my more than 40 years of service this is the single greatest logistic challenge that I’ve come across,” he said. “I’ll just give you a scale of the problem; in the 25 days since we’ve started working together with the NHS, they’ve gone from some 240 customers they deliver to normally to nearly 50,000 customers. This has involved creating 260,000ft of distribution warehouse space – that’s nearly four football fields’ worth – and some 38 additional delivery routes per day. That’s the equivalent to driving three times around the world. That is a major logistic challenge.”

The military has also been involved in the seven Nightingale hospitals set up or scheduled to be set up throughout England to support the pandemic response and is involved in planning and command and control, providing additional resilience to hard-pressed staff. It is also involved in testing, both in terms of helping design the system but also in manning some of the regional test centres and adopting some innovative processes, like mobile pop-up centres, under the command of Brigadier Lizzie Faithfull-Davies and her team.

The armed services have also provided an aviation task force to support communities throughout the UK. It has been involved in helping the Foreign Office support repatriations and supporting overseas territories, as has primary casualty receiving ship RFA Argus, which has been deployed to the Caribbean region.

In perhaps a less obvious support role, Carter said the secretive 77 Brigade is working with the Cabinet Office Rapid Response Unit to help “quash rumours from misinformation and counter disinformation”. The unit was set up in 2015 to use non-lethal psychological warfare methods to “achieve stability overseas”.

Support on a massive scale

Giving an idea of the scale of the military support deployed to help fight the pandemic, Carter said between three and four thousand military personnel have been involved, with around 20,000 available the whole time at high readiness. He added they have some 73 ongoing tasks and have completed about 30. It has been a whole-force effort including not just regular military from all the three services but reservists as well; some 15% of the force has been reservists.

“It has involved defence civilians, defence contractors, scientists from Porton Down and something called the Engineer and Logistics Staff Corps., where we bring in people from industry who work inside the military in times of crisis and provide expert support for how we might link into the civilian community to bring forward skills and indeed industrial support,” he added.

Carter explained that the people taking part have been planners, logisticians, medics, engineers, and CIS – or IT-based people, adding that their contributions have been about catalysing, designing and supporting.

“I’ll just single out one individual to give you an example of the sorts of backgrounds that we’re talking about,” her said. “A young major called Major Eb Ukhtar has been mobilised from the reserve. He’s really stepped up to the plate. His daytime job is as a logistics expert, who runs Google’s transport network across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. He’s been part of the supply team that’s been working on how we distribute PPE. He’s designed an e-portal in partnership with eBay, which will in due course manage individual customers. He designed a bulk supply chain for distribution of PPE to all of the NHS regions and trusts.”

Protecting the country

Carter went on to remind viewers that despite providing this support to fight the pandemic, British Armed Forces are still involved in protecting the country and there are essential operations that must continue.

“Whether that’s defending the homeland with the nuclear deterrent or protecting British and UK airspace more generally,” he explained. “Whether it’s overseas operations in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa or further afield, or whether it’s about fielding essential operational capabilities. As we do this is we take great care not to endanger the population. All of this is a truly national endeavour.”

Carter ended with a tribute to Capt. Tom Moore, who has raised over £28m for NHS staff and volunteers by walking 100 lengths of his garden ahead of his 100th birthday on 30 April.

“We’ve even mobilised 99-year-old veterans, and I think everyone would agree that Captain Tom Moore embodies the sense of service and duty ingrained in our armed forces,” said Carter. “Our armed forces are drawn from every part of the UK and much of the Commonwealth and they take great pride in serving the communities that they are part of. Everyone is experiencing real challenges at the moment and it makes me feel immensely proud of our collective national effort in pulling together behind those on the front line to combat this unprecedented challenge, which I firmly believe we will defeat together.”